"Viral" Bird Song Takes Over Canada And White-Throated Sparrows Can't Get Enough

The early bird catches the earworm. Scott M. Ramsay

Rachael Funnell 03 Jul 2020, 11:01

New research has found that nature has the capacity to go viral in a way far superior to any TikTok dance. A 20-year study used citizen scientists to track the changing bird songs of sparrows in Canada and found that one track effectively went “viral” across the country, spreading like wildfire across 3,000 kilometers (1,865 miles) from 2000 to 2019 and wiping out an existing song in the process. Must be a dope track.

Birds of course are famous for their singing and each species will sing to the beat of their own drum. Songs among bird species do change but they are slow to transition and will usually stay loyal to the originals in an attempt to increase their chances of luring in a mate. A study investigating white-throated sparrows, published this week in the journal Current Biology, discovered that birds from British Columbia to central Ontario unceremoniously ditched their traditional three-note-ending song in favor of a trending two-note-ending variant, and researchers are puzzled as to why the new song was such a hit. New tunes among birds usually catch on locally rather than species-wide, becoming a tune specific to a region, which is how the two-note ending tune began before it reached number one.

"As far as we know, it's unprecedented," said senior author Ken Otter, a biology professor at the University of Northern British Columbia, in a statement. "We don't know of any other study that has ever seen this sort of spread through cultural evolution of a song type."

The white-throated sparrow had been whistling the three-note triplet tune since the 1960s, but when Otter moved to western Canada in the late 1990s, he noticed that the new two-note ending tune had begun to emerge. Over the course of 40 years, the two-note ending or double-ending songs had wiped out the three-note triplet from the '60s, becoming the universal track of the Rocky Mountains.


To investigate the bird song’s spread, Otter enlisted the help of citizen scientist birders across North America who were tasked with uploading recordings of white-throated sparrows in their area. Their findings revealed that the song hadn’t just taken over in the west of the Rocky Mountains but that it had also taken off across Canada.

"Originally, we measured the dialect boundaries in 2004 and it stopped about halfway through Alberta," Otter said. "By 2014, every bird we recorded in Alberta was singing this western dialect, and we started to see it appearing in populations as far away as Ontario, which is 3,000 kilometers from us."

They decided to get the sparrows themselves involved in the research, so attached what Otter termed “tiny backpacks” to wild birds who shared nesting grounds with sparrows from further afield to see if they had an impact on their singing. As it happens, they did. Not only was the new two-note song spreading via shared nesting grounds from birds that were usually geographically isolated, but in the areas it was carried to it replaced the preexisting song.

Now that this veritable earworm and its capacity to spread has been identified, Otter and his colleagues want to establish if the new two-note tune is any more effective when it comes to luring in a lady for white-throated sparrows. It’s possible that this catchy ditty could be improving the reproductive success of these fascinating birds, but I can promise posting that #SirenBeatChallenge on TikTok won’t improve yours.

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